Skico says it will be better prepared at Snowmass if it is another low snow year

A summer trails crew picks rock off a trail on the Big Burn at Snowmass this summer. Aspen Skiing Co. went 'old school' to ensure conditions will be better if it is another low snow year.
Aspen Skiing Co./courtesy photo

Aspen Skiing Co. officials are hoping for bountiful snow this winter, but they’re employing some old-school techniques at Snowmass Ski Area in case they have to deal with dry conditions again.

Skico crews are using temporary and permanent snow fences to try to capture and harvest more early-season snow and not lose it to wind scouring, according to Susan Cross, who is taking over as Snowmass mountain manager at the end of the year.

Skico also hired a larger trails crew this summer to remove vegetation and rocks from the ski runs — a practice that used to be commonplace.

Finally, the Snowmass snowmaking system was expanded in strategic ways to expand the skiable terrain during lean conditions, according to Cross.

At a recent informal briefing with interested Snowmass Village residents and visitors, Cross called the endeavors “the behind-the-scenes projects” that few observers realized were undertaken.

“Brushing, mowing and rock-picking — we went back to old school,” Cross said.

There were willows that were 3-, 4- and 5-feet tall on ski trails that weren’t covered by the early season snow last season. They limited what could be opened.

So Skico added personnel this year and they removed willows and other brush on the Elk Camp and Big Burn areas.

“Believe me, it wasn’t easy work in the heat of the summer walking up and down trails, mowing them by hand,” Cross said.

Crews also used machinery to clear brush on the Bearclaw and Campground trails and now they’re working on Long Shot.

“I think you’ll see when we get a little bit of snow early in the season we’ll be able to open more terrain just because of taking care of the 4-foot willows and the tall grasses that were out there,” Cross said.

The trails crew also removed rocks from the trails on the Big Burn and threw them into tree wells and off to the sides.

Snowcat drivers were credited with saving the season last winter by working wonders with the limited snow available. This year, Skico hopes to provide them with more snow.

“Last season the four mountain managers were tasked with a trial period of where could we place temporary fencing to capture any of the snow we were getting (because) we were losing it to wind at the top of the mountain,” Cross said.

Skico hired snow expert Hal Hartman Jr. as a consultant to help assess their plan at Snowmass. He suggested adjustments that Skico is putting in place this year.

Three, 200-foot temporary snow fences were installed this summer at the top of the Elk Camp Chairlift in an area known as Dead Horse Park, toward the Bear Bottom and Gunner’s View trails.

“We’re trying to capture early-season snow there and harvest that and make a better guest experience off the top of Elk Camp,” Cross said. “We will remove that fencing prior to opening.”

“More exciting” is installation of 250 feet of permanent fence at the top of the High Alpine chairlift, she said.

An expanded snowmaking system also will help ensure better conditions this season at Snowmass. High temperatures limited snowmaking at the start of last season.

“We’re looking forward this season to seeing if we have a poor snow season again, how are we going to make this work for our guests?” Cross said.

Skico added about 1 mile of snowmaking line along Adams Avenue, which will allow early season access to the Alpine Springs chairlift and access back to the mall.

Skico also put in new pumps that use 40 percent less energy and create 30 percent more capacity in snow production. “And there’s no impact to the water that we drain from Snowmass Creek,” Cross said.

A contractor also is replacing aging snowmaking water lines on Fanny Hill. Leaks were detected last season in the 20-year-old system.

Cross noted that Skico is awaiting U.S. Forest Service approval to add snowmaking on the Lodgepole and Lunkerville trails, which will create the first snowmaking off the Alpine Springs area. That will likely be in the works next summer.

Cross is taking over at Snowmass when longtime Skico employee Steve Sewell, the current general manager of Snowmass, retires at the end of the year.